In the quest for better sleep, how do supplements stack up: should you take valerian root vs. melatonin? Or vice versa? We talk about the differences, benefits, and science of each.
What exactly is valerian root and how does it work?
Valerian root is an herb. It comes from the roots of a plant, Valeriana officinalis, which grows parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. Once dried, the plant’s roots become prepared as teas or put into capsules as a supplement. As a supplement, valerian roots’ history dates back more than 2,000 years. Because of its sedative effect, valerian root gets recommended for sleep, anxiety, digestive issues, menstrual cramps, and other issues, too.
The effects of valerian root in studies have been inconclusive, but some studies have shown a positive benefit on sleep. It’s believed valerian root works through valerenic acids, which include sesquiterpenes and iridoid glycosides. These compounds affect GABA receptors in your body, making it more available. GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps calm your nervous system and is important to sleep.
What’s melatonin and how is it helpful?
Unlike valerian root, melatonin is not an herb. Instead, you produce melatonin naturally as a hormone. Darkness signals your pineal gland to create and release melatonin, so you’re drowsy and prepped to fall asleep. However, due to our modern, stressful lifestyles, many of us simply don’t make enough melatonin. Late-night television and lights from tablets, phones, and other sources all interfere with melatonin production.
As of 2012, more than 3 million Americans had tried melatonin as a sleep aid. By supplementing your natural production, melatonin can help you fall asleep–but it won’t help you stay asleep.
Key benefits of valerian root vs. melatonin for sleep
Deciding on valerian root vs. melatonin can often be a tough decision. But it doesn’t have to be. To start, adults who are pregnant or nursing or have liver disease shouldn’t take either. And, even if you’re in good health, it’s a good idea to check with your physician or provider if a supplement is right for you.
In studies, melatonin has been proven to help people get to sleep faster. If you have trouble with falling asleep (but not with staying asleep), melatonin might make the most sense for you. This is also true if it’s impossible or unlikely for you to stay away from phones and computers at night. With exposure to light close to bedtime, your body may not produce enough melatonin naturally. Some people with low serotonin may also benefit from supplementing with melatonin for sleep. Serotonin is a precursor to melatonin, which means your body needs it to make the hormone. Even though melatonin is natural to your body, it’s possible to have an allergic reaction to the melatonin supplement you take. (But it is rare.)
Studies on valerian root have been inconclusive, but it has been used for a long time. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that it has helped with sleep, anxiety, digestion, headaches, and even other problems. If you feel your insomnia is caused by anxious thoughts or restlessness, valerian root might be a good herb to try. It has properties that help release muscle tension and promote relaxation, which can help you fall asleep. Allergic reactions to valerian root are not common. However, the FDA doesn’t regulate ingredients in dietary supplements, so look at labels carefully. Sometimes, additives are included in products that could lead to an allergic reaction too. Let your pharmacist or provider know of any allergies you have.
Side effects and risks of valerian root vs. melatonin
Supplements like valerian root and melatonin are generally safe for short-term use in most individuals. Whether you decide on valerian root or melatonin, it’s possible to experience side effects. These supplements can cause excessive drowsiness, so you should never take them before you plan to drive or need to be alert. Sometimes, a sleepy feeling or hangover-like effect can last into the next day as well. You might also notice headaches, upset stomach, and irritability.
One of the best ways to prevent or minimize side effects is to go over what you’re taking with your healthcare provider. He or she can help you be careful with other supplements and offer advice on dosage and compatibility based on medications you are already taking.
Valerian root risks
Valerian root is not usually habit-forming; however, there have been a few instances recorded of symptoms of withdrawal after long-term use. With valerian root, you’ll want to be cautious about taking other supplements along with it. In a small number of cases, liver toxicity occurred after taking valerian root with black cohosh (a common herb during perimenopause and menopause) or skullcap. Also, if you use other sleep medications or anything with a sedative effect, bring this up specifically with your provider. In combination with these things, valerian root can cause a dangerous level of sedation or worsening depression.
Melatonin is safe for most people in the short-term (1 to 2 months). But its long-term effects aren’t as well studied. Side effects can happen and are usually a drowsy feeling the next day and/or a headache. Much less common, but still possible, are low-level anxiety or depression, being easily irritable, feeling less alert than usual, or stomach pain. Anyone with hypotension should take care when using melatonin and communicate regularly with their provider, and those with dementia should not be given it at all. Also, check in with your pharmacist about how melatonin interacts with other medications you’re taking. It may interfere with pharmaceuticals like metformin, immunosuppressants, hormonal contraceptives, blood-thinners, and more.
How much melatonin or valerian root is safe take?
Again, this is a great question to go over at your next doctor visit. Remember, you won’t want to take melatonin or valerian root together (or with any other sedative substances). For adults, 1–10 mg of melatonin nightly is considered safe for most. What’s right for you? Start low and inch up to 10 mg if it’s not helping and as long as your provider gives you the okay.
For insomnia, studies on valerian root focused on doses between 400 mg and 900 mg. You can take valerian root about two hours before bed to get the most benefit out of it. This will help you improve your ability to fall asleep and quality of sleep.
Other ways to improve sleep
There are no shortage of things that can cause insomnia, from stress, anxiety, and PTSD, to hormone imbalances, neurological issues, and more. While working with your provider to identify a cause, there are steps you can take to naturally improve your chances of sleeping (without herbs or sleep aids).
Counseling with a licensed mental health therapist can help you find new ways to cope with stress and anxiety or trauma, as well as strategies to try to help you sleep. Looking at your nighttime routine is also important. Go through the same steps daily to cue your body that it’s time to relax and rest. You might wash your face, have a cup of soothing tea, do a few yoga postures, write thoughts down in a journal, and then climb into bed.
It’s also a good idea to dim the lights in the evening. Turn off or put away devices a few hours before bed. (It’s okay to watch television if you’re at least 5 to 6 feet from the screen.) If you read on a tablet, set it to a nighttime-friendly mode. Darkness stimulates melatonin production, which helps you fall asleep.